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The secret to optimism and how to get it
In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim explains the building blocks of optimism and how to change your attributional style to one that is more positive. - photo by Kim Giles

I have a tendency to see the worst in every situation and assume things are my fault. Apparently it is driving my spouse crazy. She says that I always look at the negative side of everything and I am too quick to blame myself. I guess Im a pessimist. Is there any way to change that? Can I somehow get a more positive outlook on life and situations? I think better self-esteem would help, but I dont know how to get there. Id love some help on this.


Better self-esteem would help you, and Ive written quite a few articles on changing the way you see yourself (that you should read) but I think you also need to learn about your attributional (or explanatory) style. Your attributional style is the way you subconsciously explain events, what caused them and what they mean. Every moment of the day you are attributing events to certain factors that explain why they happened. The secret to optimism is to attribute events in a more positive way. Learning to do this also helps you battle depression and anxiety too.

Many of us have faulty attributional styles (that we picked up in childhood) and we tend to automatically see events in a more personal, negative and depressing way than an optimist might interpret the exact same event. Your personal attributional style is determined by three factors. The factors are:

  1. Internal or external: Do you tend to see the cause of most events as internal (caused by you) or external (caused by something or someone else) and do you see that as either a positive or a negative thing? If you win a game do you tend to think its because of your skill or because others played badly? If you lose a game how much of that do you attribute to your being stupid? If your boss yells at you do you assume you are the problem, or that he or someone else is? You can also see both of these tendencies in either a positive or negative way. You can see things as being caused by you and let that negatively affect your self-esteem or you can see it as powerful because if you caused it, you have the power to change it and you don't have to let it affect your value. Which are you prone to do?
  2. Stable or unstable: Do you tend to see events, faults or failures as changeable, impermanent and unstable or permanent, unchangeable and stable and again, is that a positive or a negative thing? If your boss yells at you, do you assume he is always going to hate you or do you believe that he feels that way today, but you can change that tomorrow? If you lose money do you assume it's permanent and you will never have enough or do you see it as a temporary situation you can fix?
  3. Global or local: Is this event going to affect every area of your life or is it localized to this one situation? If your boss hates you, do you feel no one likes you? Or can you see it is just this one person? Did you just lose this game or are you going to lose all the time?
The first step to changing the way you see the events in your life and getting more optimistic is to get aware and at least understand the way your brain subconsciously works. There is an Attributional Style Worksheet on my website that explains these tendencies in more detail, and it mayl help you figure out your style and process events, when they happen, in a more positive way.

Pessimists tend to see events as being internal or personal, and they see this in a negative way. They assume the problem is always about their inadequacies. They could also tend to see every problem as someone elses fault and therefore they take no responsibility for their behavior and feel powerless to change their lives. Pessimists also tend to see events as stable (like they are always going to be bad) or they see them as unstable with a feeling of powerlessness again. Pessimists also tend toward making global assumptions. When one bad thing happens they assume everything will be bad.

Optimists usually have better self-esteem and dont blame themselves and their personal faults for creating problems. If something is their fault though they tend to take responsibility for it with the understanding that it doesnt change their value as a person. Optimists usually tend to either see things as stable and mostly good or they believe in their own power to change the things they dont like. They also tend to let a bad situation stay in that situation, and they dont assume the negative is going to affect everything else.

Take some time with that worksheet and figure out your subconscious attributional style. Then understand you dont have to let your subconscious programming drive. You have the power to change your perspective and see things a different way. This is one of the most important truths we all need to embrace more fully.

We are too quick to let our subconscious mind determine how we are going to feel about situations. Many of us are even attached to the idea that we cant help how we feel. We think our feelings are out of our control. The truth is, your first subconscious reaction may be out of your control, but you can always step back from a feeling and see other options (as far as how you are going to see it, feel about it and respond to it). There are always positive perspective options.

It will take some time and practice to change your style and the way you see your life, but you can do it. I watch people change their perspectives on life and their self-worth every day in coaching.

To fix your self-esteem you will need to change your perspective about your value. Right now you subconsciously believe your value is changeable and unstable (that you can lose value and be worth less than other people, or you gain value and be better than others). You believe your value is in question and you must prove you have any. You could change your mindset on this right now and choose to see your value as stable, unchangeable and the same as everyone elses. You could see your value as a person is infinite, absolute and always good enough. This is a life-changing mindset shift that would do you (and everyone reading this) a lot of good.

You can also change the way you see your lifes journey. Instead of seeing life as out to get you and the universe as a dangerous place, you can choose to see life as a safe place and the universe as a wise teacher, who that is constantly conspiring to educate and serve you. You can choose to believe there is nothing to fear. Changing your thinking about this will literally change your life.

If you struggle to make these changes on your own, I highly recommend finding a coach or counselor to help you. A little professional guidance makes the process much easier

You can do this.
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